Jared DeMarinis, who heads the Maryland Board of Elections’ campaign finance office, said he would examine the $206,000 contribution to Baker’s campaign. Separately, the board has fined the group $500 for failure to file any campaign finance reports in 2012 and 2013.
Baker (D), who was in a contentious, five-way Democratic primary in 2010, said he could not account for the discrepancy or the committee’s failure to file required forms. “We need to fix it,” said Baker, whose campaign staff was unaware of the problem until asked about it by The Washington Post.
A formal inquiry by the state could be embarrassing for Baker, who has made improving government ethics a cornerstone of his administration. He most recently reiterated his commitment to reforms on June 20, when he announced his 2014 reelection campaign before 500 supporters at a private fundraiser.
County 1 is a slate committee that raised money for Baker and Democratic state delegates Dereck E. Davis, Barbara Frush and Tawanna Gaines, state records show. Under Maryland law, slate committees can make unlimited contributions to the campaigns of their members.
The three delegates said they did not know about the $206,000 contribution or its source. All of County 1’s funds went to Baker’s campaign committee or to pay his staff, according to state records.
“The goal was to get Rushern elected,” Gaines said.
County 1’s chairman, Kenneth Johnson, an attorney who headed Baker’s transition committee, said he is looking into the discrepancy. Johnson said he recently asked for the resignation of County 1 treasurer Thomas Felder. Felder resigned July 9 and did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Johnson said he believes that at least $200,000 were loans from Renters Finance Corp., a subsidiary of Southern Management Corp., which is headed by businessman David Hillman. The company owns thousands of rental apartments in Prince George’s and across the region.
Johnson said he will appoint a new treasurer for County 1, whom he will ask to trace the funds. According to County 1’s latest campaign finance report, the slate committee owes Renters Finance $65,000 for a loan dating to March 17, 2010. That loan is in addition to the $206,000, state records show.
Hillman supported Baker in 2006, when the businessman feuded with Baker’s predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D) . The former county executive had blamed a crime wave on apartment dwellers in the county, but Hillman and others said police were too slow to respond to calls.
Hillman said on Monday that he loaned about $300,000 to two committees that funded Baker’s campaign. Hillman said about $100,000 had been repaid and that he was in discussions with Baker campaign staff about another payment.
Slate committees have been controversial in Maryland, where the General Assembly two decades ago limited how and when developers could contribute in Prince George’s campaigns. Despite the restrictions, slates were a means for 2010 candidates for county executive to collect the limited funds. The rules were tightened by the General Assembly in 2011 at the behest of Baker to prohibit developer donations to slate committees in Prince George’s. State lawmakers this year capped transfers at $24,000 for the four-year cycle from slate committees beginning in 2015 statewide.
“Slates are too often are used as a runaround to avoid some of our campaign finance laws,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, which pushed for changes. “When you have such a huge discrepancy in the campaign reporting, it is something that the candidate and the treasurer should prioritize explaining.”
Under current law, individual donors to Maryland campaigns can give up to $4,000 to a single campaign entity, which includes slates, and are limited to $10,000 in donations during a four-year election cycle.
But many loans, which County 1 and Baker’s official campaign committee both used in 2010, can be unlimited and can be repaid up to eight years later, DeMarinis said.
Records for Baker’s official campaign committee, Friends of Rushern Baker, show that his campaign treasury had about $262,000 in cash on hand, and about $800,000 in debt as of June 20.
But Aaron Copeland, treasurer of Friends of Rushern Baker, said the campaign committee debt is about $136,000.
He said information in the state’s elections records was incorrect, adding that the errors were due to a software glitch in the state’s reporting system.
DeMarinis confirmed the software problems but said that most campaign committees spotted them a few years ago and corrected them.
“Most campaign committees automatically see that a loan pops up, and they tell us, they notify us about it,” said DeMarinis, who added that the Baker campaign first contacted his office about the loans on June 24.